George Washington, an emblem of courage and nobility, was the founding father of the United States of America. Born on February 22, 1732, in Westmoreland County, Virginia, Washington’s early life was filled with trials and tribulations. His father died when he was just eleven years old, leaving him to learn about life through the school of hard knocks. Despite these challenging circumstances, Washington matured into a resilient character, bolstered by a profound sense of responsibility, discipline, and unwavering ethical principles.
As a young man, Washington pursued a military career, distinguishing himself as a competent leader during the French and Indian War. However, it was his pivotal role during the American Revolution that catapulted him into the annals of American history. As Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army, Washington led his under-resourced and outmanned troops to an improbable victory against the world’s preeminent military power, the British Empire. Following this triumph, he served as the first president of the United States, setting the tone and conventions of the office that survive to this day. His leadership not only shaped the nation’s political landscape but also its collective consciousness, earning him the adulation of “the father of his country”.
Life After the White House: Health and Final Days
After serving two consecutive terms as President, Washington decided to retire from public life, adhering to the precedent that he had set. He returned to his beloved plantation, Mount Vernon, looking forward to a life of tranquility and farming, away from the pressures of politics. However, Washington’s post-presidency days were marked by health challenges, which eventually led to his untimely demise.
A Silent Assassin: The Final Battle of George Washington
On December 12, 1799, Washington was out on horseback supervising farming activities at Mount Vernon. The day was cold, with sleet and snow falling intermittently. Unperturbed by the harsh weather, Washington spent several hours outdoors. The following day, he developed a sore throat, yet continued his work as usual, seemingly shrugging off what appeared to be a minor ailment. However, his condition rapidly deteriorated, and by nightfall, he was suffering from severe difficulty breathing, high fever, and an unyielding sore throat.
The morning of December 14, alarmed by Washington’s rapidly deteriorating health, his family called for Dr. James Craik, his personal physician. Craik arrived and diagnosed Washington with a severe case of quinsy or throat inflammation. In an attempt to alleviate the condition, Washington was bled, a standard medical treatment of the time. The practice was based on the belief that removing large quantities of blood would help rebalance the body’s “humors” and fight off illness.
Despite the treatments, Washington’s condition continued to worsen. He struggled for breath and could hardly speak. Realizing the end was near, he showed remarkable calm, instructing his secretary, Tobias Lear, about the arrangements for his funeral. Washington, the consummate soldier and statesman, faced his end with the same stoicism that had characterized his life.
His last words, as recorded by Lear, were simply “Tis well.” He passed away at around 10 p.m. on the night of December 14, 1799. The cause of death was recorded as “inflammatory quinsy”, but modern medical experts, studying the symptoms described, believe it could have been a severe form of epiglottitis, a life-threatening condition that can obstruct breathing.
Aftermath of George Washington’s Death
George Washington’s death shocked the nation, plunging the young Republic into mourning. His life’s contributions were celebrated across the land, and his death cemented his status as a national icon. He was remembered not just as the first president or the victorious general of the Revolution, but as a man of unwavering principles and indomitable courage, who laid the groundwork for a nation that would become a beacon of freedom and democracy.
The news of his passing was shared far and wide, leading to an outpouring of grief. Military and civic leaders, citizens, and even former foes in Europe paid their respects to the fallen hero. In France, Napoleon Bonaparte ordered a ten-day period of mourning, a gesture that underscored Washington’s international stature.
The funeral, in accordance with Washington’s wishes, was a simple affair. Held at Mount Vernon on December 18, 1799, it was attended by family, close friends, and a contingent of local militia. His remains were interred in the family vault at Mount Vernon, a site that has since become a place of pilgrimage for those wishing to pay their respects to the father of the United States.
In retrospect, Washington’s death provides critical insights into medical practices of the late 18th century. The choice of treatment – bloodletting – was a common procedure then, but it likely worsened his condition. Contemporary experts suggest that a tracheotomy, a procedure known but considered risky at the time, could have saved Washington’s life. This retrospective analysis underscores the evolution of medical science over the centuries and the ever-changing understanding of disease and treatment.